I'll be the first to admit, despite a strong group of returning starters and an up-and-coming head coach in Pete Lembo, I wasn't completely sold on Ball State entering this fall. My gut instinct told me the grind of the season would get to the Cardinals, and I thought they'd have trouble building off 2012's 9-4 campaign.
While that could still happen -- injuries can afflict any team -- it's looking more and more like Ball State is one of the best teams in the MAC. In fact, it could even challenge unbeaten Northern Illinois for conference supremacy.
After an impressive 48-27 win over Virginia on Saturday, Ball State is 5-1 overall and 2-0 in conference play. The schedule sets up nicely for an extended run, as each of the Cards' next four opponents -- Kent State, Western Michigan, Akron and Central Michigan -- have shown major flaws. It seems likely that Ball State's Nov. 13 game at Northern Illinois will be more than an intriguing matchup -- it should determine which team wins the MAC West and advances to the league championship game.
Ball State's lone loss in 2013 came at North Texas in an outing that was defined primarily by turnovers. Wins over Illinois State, Army and Eastern Michigan didn't show what it could do against worthy competition, but the Cardinals' last two efforts -- victories over Toledo and Virginia -- have justified many of their preseason expectations. This isn't just a solid football team; it's a borderline top-30 team in the country.
Lembo has plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal. The passing game features all-conference-caliber receiver Willie Snead (41 catches, 715 yards, five touchdown) and two other wideouts, Jordan Williams and Jamill Smith, who both average more than 14 yards per reception. The running game boasts the two-headed tandem of Jahwan Edwards and Horatio Banks (a combined 737 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns). And the unit is led by quarterback Keith Wenning, who doesn't get the amount of hype MAC counterparts Jordan Lynch or Tyler Tettleton do but deserves some recognition. For the season, Wenning is 141-of-225 for 1,996 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions.
The Cardinals are in one of the most enviable positions in sports: Take care of business and they can achieve all of their goals. After a Beef O' Brady's Bowl appearance a year ago, Ball State is aiming even higher in 2013.
• Northern Illinois RB Cameron Stingily: There was never any question whether NIU's offense could move the ball, as quarterback Jordan Lynch finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting in 2012. There were very few questions surrounding the secondary, as MAC defensive player of the year candidate Jimmie Ward has a knack for coming up with big plays. But one thing keeping the Huskies out of the conversation for another BCS-busting season was their lack of a tailback threat. Coming into the year, senior Akeem Daniels was primed for a larger workload, but injuries have kept him off the field. Enter Stingily, who started his transition from middle linebacker to running back.
Playing against Kent State on his 22nd birthday, Stingily rushed for 266 yards and two touchdowns to help the Huskies to a 38-24 win. NIU is now 5-0 with and ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll. If Stingily can continue his maturation into a reliable rushing threat, Northern Illinois could make its way to the MAC title game -- and possibly beyond -- once again.
• Tulane: Don't look now, but the Green Wave are just two wins away from bowl eligibility. Sitting at 4-2 and 2-0 in Conference USA play, Tulane is suddenly a watchable football team, with wins over Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas. C-USA is completely up for grabs, and while it's still a little early to call the Green Wave serious contenders (an upset of East Carolina this week would change that), coach Curtis Johnson deserves props. This is a team that hasn't won more than four games since 2004 and hasn't been to a bowl game in 11 years.
• Toledo RB David Fluellen: Starting the season against two SEC opponents isn't the easiest way to find a groove. But it could end up paying major dividends for the Rockets in the second half of the season. That's especially true for Fluellen. After registering just 46 yards in the opener at Florida, the senior has now rushed for more than 100 yards in all five games since, including 220 and four touchdowns in a win over Western Michigan last Saturday. Fluellen has 846 yards and nine scores to go with 182 receiving yards through Week 6.
• Southern Miss: Far be it for me to kick a team when it's down. And the Golden Eagles are just about as down as they could be, having lost their 17th consecutive game on Saturday. But this one might have been the worst of the bunch. Southern Miss lost to Ron Turner's FIU team -- which is at or near the bottom of the FBS in virtually every statistical category. That can't be easy for anyone around the program to stomach.
The Golden Eagles went 0-12 last season to prompt the firing of first-year head coach Ellis Johnson, who is now the defensive coordinator at Auburn. Replacement Todd Monken isn't faring much better. Monken said after the game that "no one was coming to rescue" Southern Miss, but it's hard to watch any team crash and burn, especially one that is just two years removed from a 12-win campaign under current North Carolina headman Larry Fedora.
• Utah State: The Aggies came into the year with hopes of improving on last year's 11-win season. Although former coach Gary Andersen made his way to Wisconsin, the foundation for success was in place: New coach Matt Wells was familiar with the program, coaching quarterbacks in 2011 and operating as offensive coordinator in 2012, and Utah State had Chuckie Keeton. A healthy Keeton -- a year older and wiser -- gave the Aggies a chance to win any game.
On Friday, however, that changed. Keeton went out with injuries that would later be revealed as ACL and MCL tears. The loss to BYU last week hurts, but not nearly as much as losing the team's captain and a dark horse Heisman candidate. The Aggies are now 3-3 and 2-0 in the Mountain West, but their conference title hopes are likely fading fast.
We haven't checked in with Tulsa since Week 1, when the team got blasted by Bowling Green. Since then, things haven't gotten much better. The Golden Hurricane
have now lost three straight, including Saturday's 30-27 overtime heartbreaker to Rice. Although the running game finally came around with 222 yards this week, the defense isn't holding up its end of the bargain. It's allowing 36 points a game, 111th nationally.